NORTH REDINGTON BEACH — An increasing number of Tampa Bay area restaurants are proving that our ideas about vegetarian, vegan and even raw diets are outmoded. You know, that it's all about abstinence: First comes the swearing off of animal flesh, then cheese, milk, eggs and honey go out the window. And finally, raw foodism, the abandonment of cooking itself. What next, a diet of air and light?
There's nothing granola-hippy about the new Leafy Greens Cafe. It's a lovely small restaurant, white tablecloths covered in chocolate-brown butcher paper, a bamboo motif giving the walls a sophisticated East-West flavor. Yet it's another new purveyor of raw, vegan and vegetarian cuisine.
Owner Denise Becknell comes to raw foodism — the practice of preparing foods using no more than 116 degrees of heat to preserve the living enzymes that help detoxify the body — through her own search for healthy living. Vegetarian for the past 20 years, she was diagnosed with lupus and switched immediately to an all-raw diet (aiming to change her body's pH). Her lupus has receded entirely, but her commitment to eating raw remains. Through trial and error, Becknell and her husband, Doug, have developed a repertoire of recipes that are varied, tasty and indulgent enough to satisfy most diners.
In two visits I worked my way through most of the vegan and raw options, many of them a revelation: Spiraled zucchini "noodles" are topped with a raw tomato sauce and sun-dried tomatoes (a good addition with their meaty texture), with fresh herbs, garlic, shallot and lemon adding panache to the finished dish ($16). This may be a leap of faith for some, but a walnut and hemp-seed crusted "pizza" (remember, no cooking) comes topped with luxurious cashew hummus, olive tapenade, shaved fennel and grape tomatoes ($14). That same hummus appears inside a gorgeous wrap of onion bread, sprouts, avocado and tomato ($8 half, $14 whole) — the flavorful bread itself a feat of ingenuity without the aid of an oven.
These raw stunt foods are matched with a bevy of salads, like one pairing asparagus and avocado in a lemon- and tarragon-assertive dressing ($14) or another of corn, celery and green onion in a mild coconut curry ($12). These may not cause raw newbies to say, "Well, how do you reckon they did that?" but they're no less ingenious.
Raw desserts are the biggest shockers, raising eyebrows all around for the deliciousness of raw soft-serve, made of mostly frozen, pureed bananas ($8), or something called Annika's chocolate blast ($10), a frozen banana confection with sun-dried cacao nibs, shredded coconut and nondairy chocolate sauce. Decadent, I mean it, as is the vegan orange cake ($8).
All this ingenuity means the kitchen takes a while to send out plates — you probably won't get in and out quickly, but it's a lovely place to relax and unwind (a TV turned to a tropical aquarium scene facilitates). Whether for health reasons, ethics or just a desire to try something new, Leafy Greens is a risk-free way to turn over a new leaf.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, can be found at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.